[-empyre-] Re:the sublime

Lyotard on the Kantian Sublime
Anthony David
Blinn College

from http://www.bu.edu/wcp/Papers/Cont/ContDavi.htm

In the Critique of Judgement Kant defines the sublime as "that, the mere 
ability to think which shows a faculty of the mind surpassing every 
standard of sense." (1) Such striving for absolute comprehension beyond what the imagination is 
capable of representing in a simple perception or image may be occasioned 
by the "rawness" of scenes like the Great Pyramid of Cheops, the magnitude 
or immensity of which alludes to the Idea of absolute greatness. (2) Imagination's failure to contain this Idea understandably results in 
pain. (3) But pain is not the end-point; characteristic of sublime feeling is a 
"movement" of pain to pleasure: "the feeling of a momentary checking of 
the vital powers and a consequent stronger outflow of them." (4) In other words one is awestruck: nature appears as a "mere nothing in 
comparison with the Ideas of Reason." (5) From this we realize our superiority to nature "within and without us" 
and our supersensible destination beyond nature. (6)

(1) Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement, trans. J. H. Bernard (London: 
Macmillan, 1914), 110.
(2) "Idea" here is capitalized to distinguish it as transcendental, what 
must be the case in order for science to be possible. The Idea of absolute 
greatness has only a regulative or heuristic function, meaning that it is 
not factually informative but rather guides our investigation of the 
facts. Specifically, in the light of transcendental Ideas of absolute 
greatness scientists act as if it were possible, though they do not know 
this for certain, to unify knowledge in terms of a single principle-"Grand 
Unified Theory," if you will. See Frederick Copleston, Vol. 6 of A History 
of Philosophy (Westminster, Maryland: The Newman Press, 1960), 279-307.
(3) This is an example of what Kant calls the "mathematical sublime," in 
which absolute greatness takes the form of measure. It may also take the 
form of might, which Kant memorably dramatizes as follows: "Bold, 
overhanging, and as it were threatening, rocks; clouds piled up in the 
sky, moving with lightning flashes and thunder peals; volcanoes in all 
their violence of destruction; hurricanes with their track of devastation; 
the boundless ocean in a state of tumult; the lofty waterfall of a mighty 
river, and such like; these exhibit our faculty of resistance as 
insignificantly small in comparison with their might. But the sight of 
them is the more attractive, the more fearful it is, provided only that we 
are in security." (Kant, Judgement, 125). Kant's message here is 
reminiscent of Pascal's: "Man is only a reed, the weakest thing in nature, 
but he is a thinking reed ... if the universe were to crush him, man would 
still be nobler than his destroyer, because he knows that he dies, and 
also the advantage that the universe has over him; but the universe knows 
nothing of this." (Blaise Pascal, Pensees, trans. J. Warrington (Dent: 
London, 1973), 110.
(4) Kant, Judgement, 102.
(5) Ibid, 118.
(6) Ibid, 129.

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